Leo Ferre – 1973

I’m back on the saddle again and ready to share with you another unique artist. For today, I’m heading back to Europe. I’m there for music that outside of its own country of origin, remains waiting for the world at large to discover. Well, today’s track of the day Leo Ferre’s “Il n’y a Plus Rien” (There is Nothing Anymore) is another totem to this thought. In France, exist (or existed) such greats like Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Georges Brassens, and Charles Aznavour all artists who pioneered the idea of Chanson singing, before Dylan even thought about joining poetic lyrics with vocals all of those artists had already explored dramatizing music into extremes never seen before.

Rather than let vocals remain back in the mix as an afterthought, they placed themselves at the front aiming to match whatever enthralling composition they chose to accompany them. Its an artform, as seen in this performance by Jacques Brel, that makes most regular rock performances seem amateurish in comparison. At the forefront, from the onset of its creation, but always at its margins Léo Ferré lay. Born in Monaco in 1916, from a young age he had such a thirst for knowledge that few people could match at that time. It was that drive to do things differently that spurred his huge influence on a new style of Chanson singing, the Nouvelle Chanson.

Gifted in making music, but bored studying it, Leo would write music criticism by day, while reading the modernist poets like Baudelaire, Voltaire, and Rimbaud by night. Never one born for his time, he lived and fought through both World Wars, all the while arranging his first compositions while stationed in Algiers. In spite of his homely look, and early lack of stage persona, something about his compositions enthralled other musicians while regular audiences rejected him.

Nearly penniless and destitute, early in the 1950s he started to shift the way he wrote music. Rather than rely on older cabaret troupes of love and love lost, he would tackle politics, philosophy, and other heady subjects in a grander more dramatic vocal fashion. He thoroughly rejected the work of the avant-garde, which he thought was masking lack of musicianship with couched terms like “Serialism“, “Dada” and “Surrealism“, they were all valid forms of expression but lacked the meeting of minds with the common man to make them memorable. Leo, however, was willing to put the work in to create compositions which weren’t so much as abstract as inviting. Timeless in such a modern way that poetry and even new Minimalism then wasn’t. He finally saw the folly of presenting poetry simply sung as a way to affect change, for him in order to move people he had to meet them halfways…through their ears and in the streets with songs that were memorable.

What a roundtable! Jacques Brel, Leo, and Georges Brassens…

In the 60s, he started to move his machinery in the right direction. Working with composer Jean-Michel Defaye they started to record a series of albums like Léo Ferré chante Baudelaire or Verlaine et Rimbaud and finally culminating with 1970’s Amour L’Anarchie which created the kind of challenging symphonic baroque pop we hear in early Scott Walker or Leonard Cohen songs. Its music that could combine longer complex string arrangements with rock instrumentation. This kind of music joined by Leo Ferre’s just massively strong voice and phrasing was without parallel. It was music painting aural pictures normal western music had long since forgotten or lacked the intelligence to make.

For example, Amour L’Anarchie was his love song towards his anarchic and extremely-leftist views. Its one of the few cases where the music dramatically matches the concept, in this case relating the events that went down during France’s near dramatic descent into anarchy in 1968. Its an album that would have had the talents of Jimi Hendrix, and momentarily had the talents of most of the important parts of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Weather Report, until Leo pulled the rug and recorded its epic track “Le Chien” with a French prog band called Zoo. Leo was so enchanted with rock music that he was finding ways to incorporate it into his baroque pop sound at a time other Chanson singers were being left with the times.

Leo and Zoo live.

Yet again another brilliant album, that should have brought him increased exposure further cemented his reach only within France. In France, surprisingly among the youth he was reaching his peak influence. So much so that it introduced a double-edged sword. On one hand they were pulling him to go more towards the modern rock route, and on the other they were turning him off part of the audience which hated him now for going “pop”, getting some degree of wealth, and not being true to his leftist roots.

Il n’y a Plus Rien album cover.

In 1973, he released his darkest album yet Il n’y a Plus Rien. For once, in his life he choses to write and sing about his own life. Almost as if trying to relate all the troubles and pain he’s been going through, he takes the full reins of arranging and production by himself. If he was going to make a personal record he had to stand behind his whole vision. An album that starts with some alarming staccato strings pounding away while Leo sings these lyrics in the track “Preface”:

“Modern poetry doesn’t sing any more – it crawls on its arse. And yet it pretends to be refined. It has no time for dirty words: it doesn’t even know they exist.

Words are handled with kid gloves: ‘menstrual blood’ is called ‘an indisposition’ and people go round insisting that certain terms should be confined to the laboratory or the dictionary. (…)

Poetry isn’t made with words – words are brought alive by poetry. (…) Poetry is an outcry, it must be heard like music. All poetry that is only meant to be read is imprisoned by the printed page and remains incomplete.

It is given sex by the human voice, just like a violin touched by a bow.”

is unlike anything you’ll hear anywhere. In our modern era where we’re so used to symphonic music being pretty much padding for simple melodies, the way Leo uses the voice of an orchestra is enthralling. The use of voice, choral music, and orchestra married with nouveau techniques of musique concrete and dissonance, that meets its culmination in the symbolically behemoth 16 minute title track. Playing like “Like a Rolling Stone” (with thrice the righteous venom) joining up with a track full of the ghosts of Ravel, DebussyBartok, Penderecki, de Sarasate strolling through it, you get Leo relating his longest sung poetic vocals. 
The track itself is relating Leo’s disillusion with the revolutionary period that followed France’s May ’68 riots. French youth rather than take the unique opportunity of such protests turned to sloganeering and stubborn idealism rather than action and positive compromise, older generation grew even more isolationist and apathetic towards any change, all the while Leo watching all of these events unfold came out extremely disheartened by his French people. Its the mood of hope, leading to darkness that you hear in all the changes musically on this track. Once he reaches the apex of the song (around the 14 minute mark), a buzzing synth approximating a sonic swell of sort just comes through cleansing all the crescendo away (mimicking aurally the events of the time). A 60-year old Leo, then for the remainder of the track just mercilessly lays down the most anti-authoritarian lyrics against the machine he’d ever create, in effect becoming a last rebel gasp against its role in stamping out all the hope and love he’d dreamt of. For me this is all thrilling stuff, its 70mm IMAX music in a 35mm world and hopefully a unique sound that you’ll never forget…

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Listen to Il n’y a Plus Rien at Grooveshark.

Bonus track time, the Impressionist melancholia of “Richard”…